Monday, May 25, 2015

Byte: Elite: Dangerous - So you want to be... an explorer?

So, you want to get away from it all? See the sights? Get away from the tedious politics of the Old Worlds? Then becoming an Explorer is the career for you. One of the things that most attracted me to Elite: Dangerous was the fact that the entire galaxy has been modelled for you to wander at your leisure. I've spent a lot of time doing exactly that, mainly visiting the nebulae nearest to the Old Worlds, as well as doing tours of my favourite constellations, which are slightly less trodden paths out into the galaxy at large. I'm about a million creds short of gaining my Ranger's rank, but that shouldn't be a problem by the time I return back to civilisation following my latest jaunt into the undiscovered hinterlands between Sol and Sagittarius A*. My ultimate aim for exploration would be to travel all the way past Sagittarius A* to the other side of the galaxy and back - but I'm not sure whether that will be achievable, even in the most lavishly-equipped exploration ship. It would also be a huge time investment - at best you can make around 1000 light years per hour of travel, when you take into account route planning and refuelling, so it would require a couple of months of game time, at my current level of available gaming time - and I'm not sure I'm that patient. If I had a secondary save slot (which I'm sure we were supposed to have, at some point) I could have a dedicated explorer commander to give it a go with as an ongoing, long-term project, but as it is, I think I'll have to limit my ambitions to the regions around Sagittarius A*, which is a bit of a pilgrimage point for people pursuing the explorer path.

So what does it take to be a good explorer? Patience, primarily. As I alluded to earlier, exploration is quite a serene (if not outright lonely) occupation, as once you've travelled a few hundred light years away from the Old Worlds, you're very unlikely to encounter other ships, which is why most explorers tend to run without shields or weapons: since the extra mass cuts down on your hyperspace range, most explorers consider them to be unnecessary dead weight to be hauling around. I'm a little more risk adverse, so I rarely fly without a shield generator (because you never know when you're going to have a docking accident) or at least a gimballed beam laser (because if some NPC punk in a Sidewinder pulls me over when I'm about to dock with several million creds worth of exploration data on board, I'm going to show them exactly why I have a Dangerous combat ranking!). There's also the 1.3 Power Play update to consider, as well. The Lakon Diamondback is touted as a "combat explorer", which I'm taking as a sign that a certain insectoid species is going to make exploration a rather more perilous profession sometime soon. I will try out the Diamondback at the first available opportunity and let you know what I think of it. Other than an ability to tolerate your own company for hundreds of hours at a time, the other trait that can be useful for a would-be explorer is an obsessive compulsive disorder. Until recently, I took the Pokémon approach to exploring ("Gotta scan 'em all!"), and while that's great for getting your name plastered over stellar bodies if they're first discoveries (that come hand in hand with a minor cash bonus), being obsessive compulsive about scanning everything in every system you encounter can be incredibly time consuming (not to mention expensive for your wear and tear bill!), though if you're in for the long haul and don't mind spending an hour in every system you jump into, perhaps that's not so much of a problem. For normal mortals, though, doing detailed scans of absolutely everything you find is probably a good way of driving yourself nuts, so perhaps you'll want to do what I do now instead:

1) Jump in and "honk" the system with your discovery scanner. And if you want to make any kind of money at all from exploration, then you'll have to invest in an Advanced Discovery Scanner. An Intermediate Scanner isn't worth the money, since if only gives you twice the range of the 1,000Cr basic scanner (approximately 2AU as opposed to 1AU). Spend the extra 500kCr, because it will pay itself back relatively quickly.
2) Check the system map for anything worth going out of your way to get detailed scans of. These objects include neutron stars, black holes, water worlds, earth-like worlds, ammonia worlds and gas giants with life (these can usually be identified by the atmospheric markings, though I am repeatedly told that if you zoom in on a gas giant in the system map, you'll hear a sonic clue if the gas giant has life on it - I can't say I've ever heard this myself... maybe my ears aren't good enough).
3) Scan any object within immediate sensor range of the primary star - this depends widely on the object's radius and mass. Some planets require you to be within 10ls to get a scan, but larger terrestrial worlds may be scanned at up to 100ls. Class 1 gas giants are usually scannable if you're within 250ls and Class 3 gas giants can be scanned up to 1000ls away. You need to be within 2000ls to get a scan from a Brown Dwarf, whereas an M-class star can be scanned from around 4000ls away. Neutron stars and black holes are tricky, as they need you to get within 20ls (unless the black hole is super-huge), and they can yank you out of supercruise for bonus hull damage if you're not careful about your approach. Finally, don't bother doing detailed scans of asteroid fields. You don't get any money for them.
4) Once you've scanned everything worth scanning, move on to the next system, using economical routes to take in as many systems as possible and minimise the risk that you'll run out of fuel. It would be a shame to go all that way just to have to self-destruct...

As an explorer, there's only really one thing that can kill you, and that's your own stupidity and carelessness. Never, ever, try to shoot the gap between two binary stars when refuelling. Never, ever try to refuel from a T Tauri or neutron star. If you do, then you deserve that hull damage. Use the galactic map to check how close the stars are together in binary, trinary or other systems with multiple stars, and if it looks like they're close, make sure you come out of hyperspace with your throttle set to zero. Also, never fly tired. Or after a couple of Lavian Brandies. Falling asleep when in supercruise is a good way of getting yourself destroyed or running out of fuel. I've had a few close calls, saved only by getting dropped by the matchmaking server, or by waking up at my desk to find that I'm 2,000,000ls away from the star I jumped in at.
Explorer Adder - 3.6MCr
It was tempting to recommend an Explori-Hauler for the budget exploration option, since it gives you a smidge more range and is only two-thirds of the cost of the Adder, but the Adder is more durable, which despite the awful cockpit visibility (which is not something you really want as an explorer) makes the Adder my budget choice. The extra internal compartment the Adder has over the Hauler also means that you can keep a shield generator on board to protect yourself from docking scrapes when you come back with your precious cargo of data. A lot of the cost also comes from the 3A Fuel Scoop, which is certainly worth the money, as keeping the amount of time you spend in the atmosphere of stars refuelling to an absolute minimum helps reduce the risk of getting heat damaged. The heat sink launcher is for emergencies, for those times when you get dropped out into the middle of a contact binary and need to cool down before all of your modules expire. For an extra half million you could also add a Class 2 gimballed beam laser onto the dorsal mount, which is more than adequate to see off most NPCs that might interdict you during your transit between civilised and wild space, but for the most part, it's not worth the loss of hyperspace range, not when you can simply Sir Robin to safety and let your shields take the damage if they do get into firing range.
Explorer Type-6 - 9.2MCr
This might initially seem like an odd-choice for an explorer ship, but in this role, the Type-6 does actually have quite a lot going for it. Firstly, with an A-rated frame shift drive and the rest of the modules pared down to the lightest options, this gives you the best hyperspace range you'll get for under 10 million creds. Secondly, it has lots of large internal comparments, which means a honking great fuel scoop and lots of auto-maintenance units, so the Type-6 can take you on a massive tour into the tens of thousands of light years with no trouble at all. Also, like all of the Lakon ships, the canopy is fantastic for getting those lovely views of stars and nebulae - which shouldn't be a factor to underestimate, since you're going to be living off the pleasure of those views for many, many hours of playing time. Lakon do pretty much have the market sewn up when it comes to exploration.
Explorer Asp - 24.5MCr
This is the specification I'm currently running on my explorer Asp, the Culture-inspired Couldn't Find His Gravitas With Both Hands. It's not kitted out for ultimate jump range (I'd take off the beam laser and the shield generator for that), but if you're going to take exploration seriously, you need an Asp. It's got enough legs in hyperspace to reach just about anywhere in the the galactic plane, and isn't going to be as prohibitively costly as a 40ly Anaconda in terms of wear and tear, either. Plus, the Asp is nimble enough to maneouvre adroitly between stars and around planets in supercruise, and the lovely Lakon canopy gives you those all important picturesque views. You could argue that the three auto-repair units are a bit excessive, but better to have them and not need them, than need them and not have them... And at a smidge under 25 million creds (more like 20, if you have access to the shipyard at Shinrarta Dezhra), it's good value, too.
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